Please Note These Articles are meant for information purposes only and are not a substitute for Medical or Psychological treatment.
Does it make you mad if your partner fails to make the bed in the morning? Or do you find you’re unable to tolerate washing-up left in the sink? These seemingly small matters can eat away at perfectionists and it’s possible to literally think yourself into misery.
A perfectionist myself, I was given a badge many years ago which read, “Have the courage to be imperfect” – with the word imperfect spelt incorrectly. This got me thinking about how difficult it is to make the changes necessary to become a healthy non-perfectionist.
To me, perfectionism equals no mistakes, yet I don’t know anyone who never makes a mistake. I now realise just how unrealistic and counterproductive perfectionism is. Let’s face it, nobody is perfect and to expect perfection from yourself or others creates unrealistic standards that are likely to create a downward spiral of negative thinking. This type of thinking leads to self-criticism and you can end up verbally attacking yourself as well as others. Perfectionists often think in illogical and distorted ways. Cognitive therapist Dr David Burns has described different types of distorted thinking and here I give examples of how some of these distortions can manifest in the perfectionist.
All Or Nothing Thinking
A perfectionist tends to see situations in absolute black and white categories – thinking, for example, “I must be the best or I am nothing.”
Loran, a retired secretary about to start an Open University degree course in Philosophy, thinks, “If I don’t understand every concept then this course will be a total waste of time.” It just doesn’t enter her head that if she doesn’t understand something she can always ask for help and that if some of the philosophical concepts don’t make sense, she can still get enjoyment from the rest of the course.
Perfectionists often focus exclusively on negative details, causing their perception of reality to become unrealistic. If they make just one mistake or someone disapproves just once then it’s all gone wrong and anything positive flies out of the window.
After starting her Open University course, Loran tells friends she is learning philosophy. Many congratulate her on going back to education in her later years. However, one person says something mildly critical. What do you think she dwells on – the positive comments or the critical one? Yes, you’re right – she dismisses the positive remarks and frets about the negative reaction.
Discounting The Positive
In a similar way, when a perfectionist accomplishes something, it’s as though it somehow doesn’t count. Loran’s first essay comes back with a good mark – however, she tells herself that the essay wasn’t that good and was only given that mark by the tutor to encourage her to stick with the course. When another student comments on the high standard of the essay, Loran responds by saying anyone could have produced a first essay to that standard.
Perfectionists tend to believe that people are thinking and reacting negatively to them when there is no real evidence to back this up. Loran is convinced that her family and friends will think she’s crazy to take up studying again after all these years. Her sister, in particular, will wonder what she knows about philosophy, thinks Loran. Yet her sister turns out to be extremely supportive of Loran’s decision.
It’s common for perfectionists to predict that things will go badly with potentially dire consequences. Loran believes that however much effort she puts into studying, she will never gain her degree. “No matter how hard I try, I just know I’m going to fail,” she thinks to herself. Yet, realistically, Loran has just as much chance of getting her degree as the other students.
Perfectionists reason based on the way they are feeling, rather than taking the reality of the situation into account. Loran believes that because she feels she can’t sit the exam, she will never be able to go through with it. The reality is that she is perfectly capable but has exam nerves.
Six Mistaken Ideas Of Perfectionism
1 – I must be perfect
If you believe you must always be perfect then you’ll have a hard time coping with mistakes. Being human means you will sometimes make mistakes. Perfectionists demand that they never make mistakes and spiral into misery when they do. This then leads to anxiety, worry, fears and a “why bother” attitude.
Deborah wants to teach literary skills to adults. Having recently retired, she wants to study for something she considers worthwhile. An application form from a local college that accepts mature students is sitting on her desk, but she’s feeling anxious and is holding back from filling it in. Deborah is thinking: What if I make a mistake on the application form and don’t get accepted onto the course? What if I don’t like the course? What if it’s all one big mistake?
The real mistake Deborah is making is to demand a perfect outcome. She is asking for a guarantee that she won’t make any mistakes and believes that if she does make an error, it will mean instant failure and rejection. She is also thinking that she might not like the course anyway so why bother?
2 – I must be seen to be perfect
Perfectionists often hold the mistaken idea that other people expect perfection of them, when in reality they probably expect nothing of the sort. This type of perfectionism is often experienced in social situations.
When meeting new people, the perfectionist may be feeling anxious due to the mistaken belief, “If you really knew what I was like then you wouldn’t want to know me” or “If I shake or blush then you will think I am strange.”
James believes that he has to be the perfect conversationalist and should have the perfect response to any conversation he engages in. James thinks that if he shows a less than perfect understanding of the subject being discussed, people will look down on him. As a consequence, he rarely speaks up, only doing so when he’s feeling really confident about the topic being discussed. What’s more, when he does engage in conversation, he’s terrified of how others will perceive him. James thinks to himself:
What if I say something stupid? What if people think I don’t know what I’m talking about?
What if they look down on me?
James is demanding that he must be the perfect conversationalist and that, if he fails to impress with his vast knowledge of just about any subject, he will be rejected. Is it any wonder that he feels anxious and tends to avoid social interaction?
3 – I must be able to control my emotions all the time
Perfectionists often hold the mistaken belief, “I must be happy and calm all the time” – believing, for example, “I should never be angry/anxious/worried/depressed” or “I should never argue with anyone.”
Ian has been dating his girlfriend Andrea for three months.
During this time, Andrea has called the shots on where to go, who to see and what to do. If Ian tries to suggest they do something different, Andrea tends to dismiss his ideas out of hand. Ian complies with Andrea’s wishes wearing a happy smile and never expressing how he truly feels – however, over time, Ian has become increasingly resentful that Andrea never gives his ideas and suggestions the time of day. Ian believes he has to be the happy, smiling compliant boyfriend but is becoming more and more worried about the future of their relationship. Ian thinks: What if she thinks my ideas are no good?
What if we end up having a huge argument?
What if she thinks badly of me?
She might want to dump me. Ian believes he has to hold on tightly to negative emotions. He is terrified of expressing how he really feels for fear of confrontation. Finally, Ian can stand it no more. However, instead of tackling the issue, he ends the relationship.
4 – My partner must be perfect
Perfectionists sometimes have unrealistic expectations about relationships and have problems sustaining one because they expect perfection from their partner. At first, it may seem like their mate is everything they’ve been looking for. However, as the relationship becomes more involved, they discover that their partner doesn’t live up to their expectations. The romantic perfectionist finds it difficult to move from the early honeymoon period to a real human intimate relationship, becoming frustrated and depressed.
Beverly is a serial dater. An attractive woman, Beverly is asked out by eligible attractive men on a regular basis. However, even though she has got on well with most of them, Beverly just can’t commit. After just one or two dates – hardly enough time to give her or the guy a chance -she finds something “not quite right.” Beverly is unable to choose a mate because she always thinks someone more perfect is just around the corner. As a result, Beverly has never experienced a satisfying long- term relationship.
Beverly thinks to herself:
This guy is too fat/thin/short/tall.
What if he’s not perfect, in bed? What if he snores?
What if I find out he’s not perfect – I couldn’t stand having to end it. The idea of embarking on a relationship that might not work out terrifies Beverly. In the few relationships she has had, Beverly has not given much thought to the idea of compromise and this has stopped her love affairs from progressing. Demanding that a partner is perfect, is asking for trouble and no guarantee of a successful intimate relationship.
5 – Other people must be perfect
Perfectionists may believe that other people must always meet their expectations – that they must be perfect. They may also believe that the world must behave in the way they demand – a recipe for disaster.
Peter demands perfection from his son Ian. He wants him to be the very best in his class. From maths to English, cricket to gymnastics, Ian has to excel. Peter is totally preoccupied with his son’s performance and this inevitably puts Ian under intolerable pressure. Then, out of the blue, Ian’s head-teacher asks Peter to come into the school to discuss his son’s emotional state of mind. Peter demands perfectionism from Ian because he erroneously believes it is in his best interest. He had been through a difficult time as a child due to his parents’ divorce and had experienced problems at school, leaving at the age of 16 without any qualifications.
Peter is thinking:
He must be the best or else I have failed him.
What sort of a parent am I if I don’t push him?
What happens if he ends up on the scrap heap like I did?
Peter has paid very little attention to Ian’s genuine achievements. Instead of focusing on the fact that Ian is achieving good grades, he demands an impossibly high standard. This is unintentionally cruel, self-defeating and also irrational because no one is perfect.
6 – In order to be loved and accepted I must have a perfect body
Holding this or a similar idea may be one of the most potentially damaging forms of perfectionism in our society today and leads to an array of problems including eating disorders, depression and even suicide.
Heather is disgusted with herself. Standing on the scales, she has put on one and a half pounds in weight since yesterday. Heather is sick of the way her stomach sticks out. She’s also convinced her thighs are fatter. Heather resolves not to eat that day and goes off to work determined to drink only water. She works through her lunch break, but later that day a colleague reminds her about tonight’s meal at a local restaurant in celebration of his birthday. Heather’s heart sinks and she resolves to only have a salad.
When she gets home from the restaurant and sees her bloated stomach, she thinks, “That’s it – I will always be fat.” Reaching for the cupboard, Heather takes out a very large bar of chocolate and devours the lot. She then cries herself to sleep.
Heather is thinking: I must look perfect. My fat stomach will put men off.
Thin is beautiful. If I don’t eat today I will lose some of my weight. Heather has some very unrealistic and unhealthy ideas about how to lose weight. She is also very close to developing a serious eating disorder such as bulimia or anorexia. This all stems from her out-of-proportion fear of gaining weight and an unrealistic belief that her body “should” look a certain way.
Peter, The Driving Perfectionist
Peter has failed his driving test three times. Over the past two years, he has been through four driving instructors and has lost count of the number of lessons he has had. In spite of what instructors have told him, Peter is convinced that he is not cut out to be a driver. “My instructors keep telling me that I just lack confidence,” Peter told me when he came for therapy. “From the moment I get behind the wheel of a car, I get nervous and start making mistakes – how can I expect to get anywhere if I keep messing up?” During his first session with me, Peter explains that he is convinced he will never pass his driving test and is contemplating giving up. Despite repeated encouragement from his instructor, Peter believes that when it comes to driving, he is a failure. Let’s join Peter in the early phase of his therapy:
Michael: “So your driving instructors say you have ability but lack confidence?”
Peter: “Well, they’re right about the lack of confidence, but wrong about the ability. I think they’re just saying that to make me feel better.”
Michael: “So they’re lying?”
Peter: “It’s just that I get angry with myself when I make so many mistakes.”
Michael: “That’s important and we need to discuss that, but first I would like to ask what you think the instructors meant when they said you have ability. Let’s list what you do right.”
Peter: “Oh they don’t really count because of all the mistakes I keep making.” (Notice how Peter discounts the positive.)
At first, Peter is reluctant to contemplate that there are aspects to his driving that are going well – a common trait in perfectionists. Although he finds it difficult he is able to list the things he is getting right and starts to feel a bit better.
Michael: “So what does this list tell you Peter?”
Peter: “OK, I see your point – I’m not a complete failure but that doesn’t alter the fact that I get anxious and make mistakes.” Michael: “That’s true but your problem doesn’t lie in the fact that you make mistakes – after all, everyone who has ever learnt to drive makes mistakes. Rather the problem is that you demand that you “must not make mistakes.” When you place an unrealistic demand on yourself, you generate anxiety and when you’re feeling anxious you’re far more likely to make the very mistakes you’re trying to avoid.”
I explain to Peter the characteristics of irrational beliefs – to recap, these beliefs are unrealistic, rigid and blow things way out of proportion. They lead to unhealthy feelings and behaviours. I tell Peter about the three major irrational beliefs we place on ourselves, others and the world.
- I must do well
- People should treat me well.
- Life must go the way I demand.
I then explain three flexible and healthy alternatives to these irrational beliefs: I highly desire to do well but I don’t have to. I would prefer that people treat me well but there is no universal law that says they must.
It would be far better if life went as I wanted it to but there is no guarantee it will.
Michael: “When you demand that something must be you are effectively asking for a guarantee. Yet you can no more guarantee zero mistakes than I can guarantee I’ll win tonight’s lottery.”
I ask Peter what other demands he believes he might be making about his driving.
Peter: “That I must pass my driving test.”
Michael: “That’s right – again, you are asking for a guarantee and because there are no guarantees your demand is making you feel anxious.”
Peter: “But I couldn’t stand failing.” I explain to Peter that holding irrational beliefs usually leads to an exaggeration of the severity of events – manifested in the use of words such as “awful”, “terrible” and “I can’t stand it”.
Michael: “Let us suppose for a moment that you do fail your driving test again. Why would that be upsetting to you?”
Peter: “Because I’d feel like a failure.”
Michael: “But would feeling like a failure make you a failure?”
Peter: “Well it would mean that I had failed my test four times.”
Michael: “Yes, it would but there is a world of difference between failing to achieve a goal and being a failure. When you say you feel like a failure what you’re doing is attaching a negative label to yourself. More importantly, you’re defining your whole self – your essence – based on a few failed driving tests. Don’t you think you’re worth more than that?”
Peter can now see that he has managed to stand failing the test three times so the chances are he can stand failing again.
Peter’s two major demands are:
- I must not make mistakes
- I must pass my driving test
I ask Peter to give me a specific example, using the A.B.C. format.
A. Event: Last Tuesday, during my driving lesson, I was trying to make a three-point turn.
B. Irrational beliefs: “I must not screw this up.”
“If I do screw this up, it will prove I’m no good and that I will never pass my driving test.”
C. Emotional consequence: Anxiety
Let’s now take a look at how Peter disputes his irrational beliefs and formulates rational beliefs.
D. Is it logical to demand I must not screw this up?
No, it’s illogical. I would highly prefer not to screw up my three-point turn but there’s no cast iron guarantee that I won’t.
D. How does messing up a three-point turn prove I’m no good?
It proves nothing of the sort. By writing myself off, I am defining myself as no good based on a single mistake.
D. How does it follow that screwing up my three-point turn means I will not pass my driving test?
It doesn’t follow; while learning to drive, I will probably make many more mistakes before I am ready to take my test. That is how people learn.
After challenging his anxiety-producing irrational beliefs, Peter is ready to write down his new way of thinking.
E. Effective new thinking
I would really prefer not to screw up my three-point turn but I cannot guarantee that I won’t. During the course of learning to drive, I will probably make more mistakes. Instead of giving myself a hard time I will try to learn from my mistakes and improve. That way, I stand a far better chance of passing my driving test.
Reading over his new effective thinking helped change his feelings from anxiousness to mild apprehension – a more appropriate emotion.
F. New feelings and actions
Mild apprehension. Looking forward to my next lesson.
Peter had 12 sessions of therapy, during which time we uncovered and challenged his self-defeating attitudes and behaviours. He learnt to challenge his irrational thinking before every driving lesson. Four months later, he gave me the good news that he had passed his driving test. Significantly, Peter worked on his negative thinking on a daily basis. He also used some of the other techniques described in this book – an important point as one technique will not always be enough to effect a therapeutic change.
Worrying about getting it wrong can sometimes be so powerful that a perfectionist can become paralysed with fear. If this happens to you, you’ll probably find yourself procrastinating and putting off doing something that, in reality, you’re more than capable of doing. If you feel overwhelmed by a task and fear failure, the following six-point exercise may help.
Are you thinking in distorted ways?
Have a look at the types of distorted thinking I described earlier in this chapter. Are you thinking in all or nothing ways? Discounting the positive? Fortune telling? Do any of the six mistaken ideas of perfectionism apply to you? Use a self-help form to find out what demands you may be making.
Are your goals/tasks realistic?
Perfectionists can sometimes set goals that are far too high. Are your goals/tasks achievable or are you aiming higher than is humanly possible?
Break the task down into manageable bite-size pieces!
Breaking your goals down into smaller chunks can be really helpful. If you’re crossing a river via steppingstones and the stones are too far apart, you may fall in. Bringing those stones closer together means you cross with ease. If you want to write a book but cannot think of the perfect start, remember that chapter one is only part of the whole book. Who says you can’t start writing in the middle?
Don’t wait to feel like doing it
It’s easy to fall into the trap of putting off an important task because you don’t feel like doing it. Who do you know, for instance, who looks forward to doing the hoovering. The truth is positive feelings follow action. Your sense of achievement comes from carrying out a task.
What’s the worst that could happen? The perfectionist fears making mistakes and will often perceive dire consequences. Ask yourself what is the worst that could happen? If this does come to pass, what would be the best way of dealing with it? Remember you are only human.
An exercise in imperfection The following exercise will help you learn to accept the fact that, as a human being, you are by nature imperfect.
Start by doing small tasks imperfectly. For instance, run your vacuum cleaner over your carpet and deliberately leave a corner of the room untouched, or when doing the washing up, leave a plate unwashed. Some people will find this causes unease, maybe even anxiety, and that’s the idea. By confronting your fears, you will discover that nothing terrible happens. You will quickly see that people don’t think badly of you or start disowning you. Your anxiety will reduce as you learn that it’s OK to be imperfect. As a consequence, you will feel more confident and get more things done.
When you expect perfection of yourself, you are demanding that you never make mistakes.
- Perfectionism leads to misery, anxiety and worry.
- Perfectionists will often think in illogical and distorted ways. They will dismiss what they have achieved, focus exclusively on the negative and perceive dire consequences where none exist.
- If you fear making mistakes, ask yourself, “What is the worst that could happen?” Most of the things we worry about never happen. If a worry does come to pass, look for the best way of dealing with it.
- Ask yourself, “What demand am I placing on others, the world or myself?” Use a self-help form to change your thoughts and feelings.
Deliberately make a mistake and discover it’s OK to be imperfect.
Article © 2010-2011 Michael Cohen